Wonderings and wanderings: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

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Bishkek is the Eastern Europe of 30 years ago, except with mobile phones and internet access. It is more or less a museum relic of the former Soviet Union Bloc.

This quote translates my exact feelings upon arrival in Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan. Although I remember nothing from the Soviet Union bloc 30 years ago, I do remember how my own homecountry looked like 15 years ago. And even if Bulgaria was not formally a part of the Soviet Union, it was close enough to the Big Brother to look strikingly alike. I have done my best to collect my impressions in a dedicated photoset: a concrete post-Soviet experience, in both senses of the term ‘concrete’.

I arrived on an early freezing morning after a nearly 11-hour trip. It was my very first visit to a country from Central Asia. The welcome was quite special when you think of all the army guys in uniforms checking my passport and the letters of invitation by the highest government authorities that I was carrying. Past this point, the airport was similar to any other airport in a small “developing” country: taxi drivers hurdling around and half-flirting while trying to get me in their cars. The hotel has sent a car for me—and as anytime a high-ranking hotel in a poor country from Eastern Europe wants to appear really high-ranking, they have sent a Mercedes…

On the way to the airport, I felt nearly like home: the road, hardly equiped with lights, was surrounded by trees with their truncs partly painted in white. This is seemingly done to help drivers comprehend where the road ends… Indeed, no safeguards exist on the road; yet, the cars’ lights are reflected by the white painting, so the driver understands where the road ends (well, hopefully). I remembered trees painted in white back home, this was a very bizarre thing to me as a child.

The impression of being suddenly sent back in time could not but grow in the coming days. The air smelt of warm coal, just like home when the general heating system is ON. The streets had multiples holes and cracks but benefited from little lights around. Nearly nobody speaks English, and the bulk of taxi drivers is under-qualified people having left their countryside to seek for a living in the capital. Which is why they have no idea whatsoever where you want to go—so, they ask you to tell them the way… Which is, erm, quite tricky for anyone coming to Bishkek for the first time ever. The people are however really nice yet straightforward (which may be seen as adversarial at times); the waiters and waitresses in restaurants stuff you with food and drinks as this is what hospitality means to them. Oh, and they still do these weddings in fancy restaurants with kitsch clothes and Western popmusic from the 1980s where everyone goes to the middle of the restaurants and dances. We bumped into one such happening, it was quite surreal for me to find the exact same scheme as back home more than a decade ago. And honestly? Really made me laugh and feel emotional again.

I visited Bishkek in late November 2014 while on a work mission for the World Bank. I was there to help bolster a demand for Open Data, leading the ‘demand side’ of the mission (my colleague, Ton Zijlstra, was leading the ‘supply side’ of the mission). With fellow Open Data enthusiasts from the Bank and other places in the world, we were organising the Kyrgyz Open Data Days and bootstraping an Open Data Readiness Assessment aimed to evaluate how best to initiate an Open Data initiative in the Kyrgyz Republic. The event live-tweeted under #OpenDataKG saw the Prime Minister delivering a speech (the guy on the pic below) along with quite a few government officials, NGOs and entrepreneurs joining.

The Kyrgyz press extensively covered the Kyrgyz Open Data Days: An example. Image by Ton Zijlstra, CC-by-NC-SA 2.0 on Flickr

The Kyrgyz press extensively covered the Kyrgyz Open Data Days: An example. Image by Ton Zijlstra, CC-by-NC-SA 2.0 on Flickr

Ahead of the event, World Bank and UNDP Kyrgyzstan staff have described some of the major challenges which Open Data could help address. The event and its stakes have been extensively covered by the World Bank and the live-tweet. I have also uploaded my slides, in both Russian and English:

See you soon, Bishkek! I think we could get to know each other better (despite your airport being a total dump).

#MyLife: Open Democracy named me ‘Columnist of the Week’

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Regular readers of this blog know I rarely speak about personal stuff. This time is one of these times though: Open Democracy’s Arab Awakening section named me ‘Columnist of the Week’! I’m very humbled and glad, and hope more attention will be drawn to the article that’s the reason of such a nomination: MENA Doctors in Trouble.

Screenshot from oD's Arab Awakening webpage

Screenshot from oD’s Arab Awakening webpage

Egypt: Draft Law on Internet Terrorism

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Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm (AMAY) has published a transcript of the draft law on combattling terrorism on the internet in Egypt. From what I’ve been told, anti-terror law has been on the table for many years  and the battle against it was that it will inscribe the emergency laws in the criminal code. It seems here that the internet is given a significant attention, at least at the first reading. Whatever the provisions, the draft law aims at legalizing pervasive surveillance and and will be a very convenient tool for jailing bloggers and all kinds of people estimated as junta-noncompliant.

Here are the most notable excerpts after a quick read-through. My comments are in blue.

The draft law contains four chapters: Chapter One is on the general provisions; Chapter Two is on punishment; Chapter Three is on procedural provisions; and Chapter Four deals with international judicial cooperation.

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Big Data, Bad Data: my keynote at the Open World Forum 2013

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I was honored to be giving the closing keynote at the Open World Forum 2013 in Paris on 4 October 2013, where I shared the stage with Rand Hindi of :SNIPS and Romain Lacombe of French Prime Minister’s Commission Etalab. We spoke about what big data can bring to the society, and I focused on critically discussing common misconceptions in both Big Data meaning and analysis.

Syria’s vanishing history

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[This was first published on Nature Middle East.]

The war in Syria is laying waste to ancient monuments and artefacts, while archaeologists and citizens scramble to protect what they can.

Syria’s rich cultural heritage, which stretches back to the beginnings of human history, is at risk as fighting ravages the country.

Gathering accurate information is a challenge, but despite the violence, archaeologists and citizens have been trying to document the destruction of historical sites in the wake of all international archaeological missions leaving Syria.

From Babylonians to Arabs and the Crusaders, numerous civilisations have left their mark on Syria. Six of the country’s sites appear on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list: Damascus, Aleppo, the Crac des Chevaliers, Palmyra, Bosra and the Ancient Villages in Northern Syria. Hundreds of monuments are on UNESCO’s Tentative List, and the national heritage register also boasts a wealth of treasures.

Since the unrest began in March 2011, the destruction of cultural sites has often been reported. The cause of damage ranges from shelling and gunfire to army occupation and bombing. Rampant looting and illegal developments on unguarded archaeological sites is also rife.

Syria’s Directorate-General of the Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) is the authority in charge of the maintaining, safeguarding and preserving the country’s heritage, but the ongoing conflict makes DGAM’s remit increasingly difficult.

Before the violence started, about 180 national and international archaeological missions were represented in Syria, but they all left the country in 2011.

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MENA Infographic Roundup: Education, Tech, Work Dynamics

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I was feeling like wrapping up a few interesting tidbits I stumbled upon earlier. These are all infographics, some are in Arabic. Enjoy 🙂

Tech

Wamda publishes a nice and comprehensive infographic (full size) summing up the ways Jordanians use the Internet. For Arabic-impared, here are a few highlights:

  • internet penetration in Jordan is only around 48%;
  • of the 1.5 million internet users in Jordan, 90% of women and 87% of men use social networks;
  • the vast majority of internet users are men between 20 and 30 years old;
  • men spend more time on social networks than women (one hour 37 min vs. 50 min, respectively), but streaming websites — amongst the most popular in Jordan — have equal visit rates;
  • Internet users aged above 40 represent 11% of the total number of all internet users in the country.

Internet Use in Jordan, by Y2D and Ipsos.

I have previously written on Jordan (and spoke on radio about it). The most recent piece is here: Jordan Starts Blocking ‘Unlicensed Websites’ (published in Jadaliyya).

Education

I stumbled upon an interesting infographic by the Worldbank, entitled “What Will It Take to Achieve Education for All?”. The infographic doesn’t focus on the Middle East specifically but wraps up global trends. It was published back in April 2013, preparing for the ‘Learning for All’ Ministerial Meeting. The Worldbank Blog published excerpts from the associated social media campaign that I recommed you have a look at.

  • إنفوجرافيك: ما المطلوب لتحقيق هدف التعليم للجميع؟ (full size)
  • “What Will It Take to Achieve Education for All?” (full size)

infographic-educ-ar

I have recently written on more Middle East-targeted education topics: Information Technologies and Education in the Arab World (published in Nature Middle East).

Workplace

Bayt.com, the famous online job search platform, has conducted a poll which saw 9,845 respondents covering the UAE, KSA, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia. The results are presented in a comprehensive infographic (full size); highlights:

  • 20% of job seekers blame the educational system for being ill-prepared for the current job market;
  • 54% of professionals are active job seekers who apply regularly (vs. 46% who are passive job seekers, that is they wait for employers to find them);
  • 30% of professionals feel the biggest turn-off in a manager is the lack of vision;
  • top industries perceived to be employing the most talent are Oil and Gas, & IT and Telecom.

Workplace Dynamics in MENA

From Bahrain to Bulgaria: Creating Pleasant Online Space for LGBTQ-related Discussions

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What do Bahrain and Bulgaria have in common? No, it’s not the B…

Bahraini entrepreuner and activist Esra’a Al-Shaffei launched Ahwaa.org back in 2011 as an online space for LGBTQ-related discussions in the Middle East. Today, Bulgarian Kilera.org kicked off.

Kilera.org is an online forum dedicated to the LGBTQ community in Bulgaria. It was built after Ahwaa.org, in conjunction with Bulgarian LGBTQ NGO Deystvie (‘action’). Kilera (‘closet’) in Bulgarian is the slang word used to describe the period of time when LGBTQ people hide their sexual orientations and/or identity: ‘locked in the closet’. Kilera.org thus comes at a very timely moment, and I am sure it’ll really make a difference.

The situation with the LGBTQ community in Bulgaria is worrisome as homophobia is rampant and hate speech is prevalent. Thus, a 25-year old medical student was beaten to death by other young people because “he looked gay” and the young men were trying to “clean up” a famous park in the capital city of Sofia from gays. Such dreadful crackdown is one of the manifest signs of homophobia in the country: in 2009 and 2011, Bulgaria was the most homophobic EU Member State as reported by dedicated studies from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.

The International Day Against Homophobia (May 17) was marked by new worrying studies showing that more than 1/4 of LGBTQ people have sufferred some type of physical violence in the last five years, attacks generally led by small groups of male aggressors and occurring in public places. Despite the high frequency of attacks, complaints are rarely filed as people don’t consider the police and the judiciary to be anyway willing to do something.

Although the situation seems to improve in 2012 — Bulgaria is “just” among the most homophobic EU states, not the most homophobic — 53% of the LGBTQ community members have undergone some kind of harassment or retaliation for their sexual orientation and/or identity in the last 12 months preceeding the study. Gay pride marches are also welcomed with obvious hostility.

MENA Nukes

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Some time ago, I created the infographic below. Now that I have a look at it, it is pretty much Q&D thingy, but the important is there: data is correct, proof-checked and properly introduced. I thus decided to anyway publish it.

Data source

Nuclear power in the Middle East. Click to zoom in. Ask me for the .svg source

Nuclear power in the Middle East. Click to zoom in. Ask me for the .svg source

Open and Connected: Impressions from the Social Media Week Hamburg and Paris

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[Co-written by Mario Sorgalla and yours truly, this post was first published on FutureChallenges.org.]

This year, Social Media Week celebrated its fifth birthday. Ten cities all over the world were hosts of this truly global conference. The organizers marked this milestone with a unifying global theme that explored openness in a connected and collaborative world.

Future Challenges first got in contact with Social Media Week last year. The Future Challenges team gave a crowdsourced presentation titled “Big World – Big Challenges: can a big network help?”. Twenty bloggers from our worldwide blogger network contributed to this presentation. That’s just one of the reasons why we at Future Challenges are familiar with the benefits of openness and collaboration – especially across borders.

Social Media Week 2013

Our globalized world forces us to rethink accustomed practices. The organizers of the Social Media Week assert:

Emerging technologies have dramatically changed the way we communicate and engage (with) the world around us. One voice can now ripple to millions, and we can now share our passions openly and across cultural and geographic boundaries. Change is happening everywhere (…). Groups are self organizing to take positive action. Transparency, accountability, information sharing, and collaboration are accelerating progress to levels never seen before.

FutureChallenges.org joined Social Media Week in two European cities: Hamburg (Germany) and Paris (France). Mario Sorgalla reports from Hamburg and Rayna Stamboliyska participated in Paris.

Hamburg

One week and 170 events. You don’t need to be a professional statistician to seee that one person couldn’t possibly attend all the sessions that the organizers of Social Media Week (SMW) Hamburg got going. But this abundance of interesting sessions was a great opportunity for cherry-picking. Which new trends, tools and perspectives did Social Media Week Hamburg offer its participants regarding “Principles for a Collaborative World”?

My personal Social Media Week started with a presentation about corporate blogs. Many, or actually most of, the big corporations are still hesitating to start their own blog. A loss of control is probably the main reason for such reluctance. The classical mindset in Public Relations and Communication departments is that the information flow has to be controlled and directed. Such a mindset necessarily clashes with the attitude that prevails in the blogosphere and on social media channels. However, there are some good examples of big corporations that run their own blogs, like the Daimler blog. Setting up blogs could be of particular interest for transnational corporations. Don’t you think it would be exciting to get to know the faces in different countries behind an anonymous corporation?

Let’s jump to the second day in Hamburg, when the session “A Nerd Toolkit for Journalists” caught my attention. I’m not a journalist and not a nerd (though some people might challenge the latter point) but I’m convinced that data visualizations — the focus of this session — will become ever more important for our globalized world of big data. We learned about some useful visualization tools and got to know the technical basics of visualizations. Did you know that the Guardian provides all the data they use for their visualizations via Google spreadsheets? And why shouldn’t they? They don’t own the data and everybody in any corner of the world can take these data and create something new. This is how globalized data journalism looks like. If you’re interested in the technical basis of data visualizations and you understand German, you should take a look at this summary. You will find some useful notes from the session.

…It’s already Wednesday! My highlight of the day was “Wikipedia in Museums”, an inspiring project that I’ve also discussed on my blog. There is hardly any better example for our global, open and connected information society than Wikipedia. The German Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte (Museum for the History of Hamburg) has collaborated with members of the Wikipedia community in Hamburg in order to publish information and photos about many of the museum’s exhibits on Wikipedia, an endeavour resulting in a rich collection of information for all museum geeks out there. The museum’s visitors can access this information via QR codes that are placed next to the museum signage. I’m sure there will be many more projects like this in other parts of the world.

Paris

For its third edition, SMW in Paris hosted “only” 62 events. But what a tough choice it was, selecting which one to visit, especially when I was also speaking at a few of them. As a number of the organizers are also involved in what I’ll call the collaborative economy, many sessions were converging to the focal point of identifying economic models able to sustain open knowledge in the broadest sense. Here are my top 3 SMW events from the last week!

The first day kicked off with a whole afternoon at Paris’s City Hall. This building is an absolute jewel in terms of external architecture and the interior totally follows, which makes the venue even more striking as we discuss the ‘digital Parisian’ against a backdrop of 19th century marble chimneys. The goal was to build a bond between the Parisians and their (well, our) city. One of the ways to do so was with the introduction of an app, “Dans ma rue” (translated: “In my street”), inspired by the British ‘Fix my street’. The app aims to provide Parisians with a handy tool to report the status of city works in the neighbourhood. Using the app, anyone can take a photo and geolocate the situation.

The event itself also allowed us to work in groups of 3-5 during an hour around a few other topics. In one group session, we worked on the idea of ‘Paris Answers’, a crowd-sourced Yahoo! Answers-inspired platform which will collect information on various topics related to services proposed by the city. A very interesting debate emerged around the possibility and the rationale behind crowd-funding of public services, an idea that clearly divided the participants. On one hand, some were putting forward the fact that a citizen already pays taxes, so s/he should not be asked an additional effort. From the other hand, why reject such a much more targeted contribution to the city and the neighbourhood? So many answers yet to find…

A session dear to my heart came on Tuesday: “Open & Connected: Research Joins, Too!”. In this session, we addressed vital questions about the economic models that underlie open libraries, open data produced by public institutions, and open labs. I talked a bit about open data and how it can change a person’s everyday life; one can stop being an observer and begin acting upon one’s environment. More specifically, the discussion emphasised the screaming need for opening the data produced by research groups, especially by those that receive public funds. If you read French, I greatly recommend you to allocate a neuron or two to the summary (and in any case, to watch the amazing video, no French speaking required).

Last but not least, I’d like to end this retrospective with a very short mention of the Open Hardware session. We had Open Source Software decades ago, now the time has come to have all the nerds united and geek out with Open Hardware. Actually, this is partly misleading, as anyone can hack: I leave you to the fabulous ‘Fabrique–Hacktion’ initiative (French & English) which will convince you that everyone can be creative and that wonderful things can be achieved when we work in an open, connected way.

Retraction Watch suffers DMCA bugs*

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*Ok, trolling away, DMCA itself is a bug.

The background: Retraction Watch is one of the must-follow resources on the web for anyone who is interested in scientific publishing. The blog, maintained and nurtured by Ivan Oransky (Reuters health editor) and Adam Marcus (science journalist and managing editor of Anesthesiology News), is the place for keeping abreast of retractions and corrections in scientific and medical journals. Recently, the blog editors woke up to find out that 10 of the posts have been taken down.

What happened? Apparently, some firm from India copied these 10 posts — relating to Anil Potti, a cancer researcher whose career is imploding as 19 of his papers were already retracted, — then claimed them and filed a DMCA takedown notice. Consequently, the posts were pulled off by WordPress from Retraction Watch… and haven’t been restored thus far.

Petitioning Obama: Build a Death Star!

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This is my #LulzOfDaDay 🙂 Background: the Obama administration provides a web platform — We the People, — for citizens to send a petition to the President, and “if a petition gets enough support, White House staff will review it, ensure it’s sent to the appropriate policy experts, and issue an official response.” Among the most popular petitions, you can find one calling for free access to scientific publications arising from taxpayer-funded research or the one asking for the removal of District Attorney Ortiz for overreach in Aaron Swartz case.

Star Wars Cookies, by Betsy Weber on Flickr (CC-by 2.0)

Star Wars Cookies, by Betsy Weber on Flickr (CC-by 2.0)

And here comes one of the most important petitions to Obama ever: “Secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016.” Launched on Nov 14, 2012 it has gathered nearly 35,000 signatures thus far. The rationale:

By focusing our defense resources into a space-superiority platform and weapon system such as a Death Star, the government can spur job creation in the fields of construction, engineering, space exploration, and more, and strengthen our national defense.

This makes you laugh? Come on, don’t go medieval on this concerned citizen. The Obama administration took his demand into consideration as it “shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense.” Unfortunately, a Death Star isn’t on the horizon:

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“The Art of Being Still”

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I am my character, pedaling down to the beach after a long day of working as a hotel housekeeper. I see the world through his eyes. I imagine what he is thinking. I use that brief time to become him.

I transform the mundane task of grocery shopping into a writing exercise by studying my fellow shoppers through the eyes of my character, a man who is on the run from the law.

I eye each one with suspicion and dodge any cop who might be trotting along with a grocery basket in hand. I sometimes steal a quirk from a woman nearby to apply to one of my female characters in the book. I am multitasking, but there is stillness at work here.

Silas House on the quietness of writing.

The *pr0n wave

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It is now more or less a public secret that my PhD deals with sexual behaviour, sex-biased genes, and all kinds of sex-related stuff. Until now, it was doing so with flies.

Recently, I started broadening my expertise. Here is some evidence.

It all started with this one. Not my fault, the Absolutely Madness Tumblr blog just bumped into me.

It all started with this one. Not my fault, the Absolutely Madness Tumblr blog just bumped into me.

Flower pr0n.

Flower pr0n.

Turtle pr0n. Captured by yours truly when visiting the Snake Park in Nairobi, Kenya.

Turtle pr0n. Captured by yours truly when visiting the Snake Park in Nairobi, Kenya.

And then, a friend going to Mombasa (Kenya), without me, bumps into this.

In the meantime, a friend going to Mombasa (Kenya), without me, bumps into this.

And today I was pointed to these images.

And today I was pointed to these images.

(source for the last one: La séxualité des dinosaures vue par un artiste)

And a small update (a close friend used to call me Medusa, which pretty much resembles me… 🙂 ):

Medusa :)

Medusa 🙂

Another update: the ultimate pr0n

Cyberpunk mayonnaise: Thoughts about the cyberspace in a day without internet

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The awkward moment when you wake up and realize your internet connection is screwed up is the moment where you start thinking in a different way. Yes, in 2012, in a rich Western country, a storm can still cut the internet. In such a case, “storming the internet” takes a very clear, ground-level meaning… Well, ok, let’s get to something tasty yet nearly forgotten: being home alone and reading a book.

I get bored very easily and have a particular propensity of making myself accomplish miracles. In other words, I start a huge amount of complex tasks that I often have little knowledge about: what is more exciting than exploring immense territories of human minds and imagination? This is a rhetorical question. Coherent with myself, I’m in the situation where my third year of PhD in science coincides with the year when I have to complete my Bachelor’s in Law of the industrial property. Yeah, I know. But I spoke miracles, right.

Anyway, lyrical auto-centered swerve ends here. After 5 minutes of deep exhausting thinking, I decided that my Bachelor’s thesis should encompass not only the privatization of biological matter and genetic information – where I could thoroughly explain why biopatents are a very ugly and unnatural idea – but that I should broaden the spectrum of ugly and unnatural ideas to the basic, the fundamental one: intellectual property itself. I thus decided to include the so called “new technologies” (that is, the Internets) and software patents.

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This is why we fight

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Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with the golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams beneath your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams…

“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”, William Butler Yeats